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Elizabeth: The Golden Age

dir: Shekhar Kapur
[img_assist|nid=21|title=Get me off of this fucking horse|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=300|height=375]
I’ve figured something out. It’s been something of a revelation. I finally understood what history represents to those who make movies.

History is a brand, a logo. Historical figures, real people who once lived and did great, mediocre or dastardly deeds, are nothing more than marketing properties.

Elizabeth, the Virgin Queen, the monarch who presided over a great time for the Empire, is as real to the people who made this film as Robin Hood, Captain Jack Sparrow, or Darth Vader. They’re branded characters, recognisable from their trademark physical characteristics, a few character traits (stealing from the rich, choking people without touching them, being drunk and gay) and little else. Elizabeth is whatever they want her to be, and whatever Cate Blanchett’s ego wants her to be.

Because the selling point alone is that it’s Our Cate playing the Elizabeth property for the second time.

The really curious thing is that, as much as I dislike Blanchett in the lead role, it’s not because of the acting. The acting by most of the participants in this marketing exercise is perfectly serviceable. Clive Owen plays Sir Walter Raleigh with rakish charm and the appeal he brings to nearly every role, Geoffrey Rush reprises the spymaster Francis Walsingham role adequately, Abbie Cornish is nice as one of Eliza’s handmaidens. Samantha Morton is not terrible as Mary Stuart.

There are some other people, and I’m sure they’re not terrible in terms of the acting stakes. What the script asks them to say, though, throughout the length, breadth and girth of this bloody film is quite embarrassing.

I’m not blind to the difficulties inherent in scripting something like this. There’s so much detail to choose from, so many events of her nearly fifty year reign you could look at. Getting the balance right in terms of palace intrigue, romantic melodrama and the war with the Spanish as your main story seemed like a winner, in terms of the more important elements to include. But why make it so hollow?

Elizabeth continues to be urged to marry in order to secure her reign and England’s future. European powers, Catholic powers plot her downfall, local ‘loyal’ subjects plot to kill her, Spanish ambassadors call her a whore openly, and she has the hots for Sir Walter Raleigh, an adventurer and privateer par excellence (it means pirate), but can’t act on her feelings because she’s the queen.

Blanchett thinks that Queen Bessie is a complicated character, a difficult brand to market effectively. She believes, and the director believes, this complexity is best represented by having her shout aggressively about hurricanes and war at some times, and then be quietly insecure behind closed doors about whether boys like her or not.

That’s not complexity. Teenage girls who play aggressive hockey and who wonder about their figures in front of the mirror exhibit this same level of confusion about themselves, their bodies and their self-worth. With all due respect to teenage girls, and they are lovely, most of them aren’t really deserving of biographical movies costing many millions of dollars to make.

Ambivalence, ambiguity, unclear delineations between what a person desires and what a person feels bound to do by duty and the tension that arises from it are part and parcel of most people’s existences, and almost every character that graces our cinema screens. That doesn’t make Elizabeth’s confusion interesting because it’s universal; it makes it generic and formulaic.

Countless evidence exists of what Elizabeth did or said at almost every stage of her life. Could she really have been as dull and immature character in her 50s as what they characterise her to be here?

Blanchett’s portrayal, perversely, is well acted but comes across in the end as painfully false. I get almost no sense of the ‘real’ Elizabeth from watching this flick at all. I get no sense of what dangers she really faced, what difficult decisions she made and what genuine conflicts warred within her during this or any other part of her tumultuous reign.

None of her scenes with Raleigh ring true, and her scenes with her various handmaidens include Bess (Cornish) reminded me more of Sophia Coppolla’s Marie Antoinette than Masterpiece Theatre. About the only moment where she could have had a good scene with another character, when she’s berating the Spanish Ambassador, he and his entourage of Catholic lackeys is walking away from her.

Arrayed against her are forces conspiring to put Mary Stuart on the throne in her place. Mary spends the entire film in a silken prison, and when she is about to go to her fate, we see Eliza’s indecision.

This was an important point, both for the Queen and from a historical perspective. Monarchs of this era ruled via the concept of Divine Right, being a form of protection against those hoping to seize power themselves. It restricted the pool of candidates, no matter how powerful or murderous, to those of clearly royal bloodlines; those clearly chosen by God.

But both Eliza and Mary are of the same bloodline, both can lay claim to the throne, and both have divinity as that which lifts them above the masses. If she kills her cousin, will she lose God’s favour? Will her Empire fall? Will she undermine the authority of the concept of monarchy?

How does the flick resolve these weighty questions? It does so by having Blanchett yelling whatever pops into her head out to an empty courtyard.

“I want it stopped! Stop it, I want it stopped right now!” she yells to no-one in particular, as, far away, Mary Queen of Scots serenely places her head upon the block.

How complex! What an amazing performance!

Give me a fucking break. This Elizabeth makes no sense, and does not, regardless of what they would like to think, balance the facets of the Queen's character or identity, or her frustration over her lack of intimacy with Raleigh, the looming threat of the Spanish, questions of what absolute power does to a person; it's all meangingless in the face of a story that wants to mistake character complexity with capricious melodrama. Screaming and crying one scene, stern and courageous the next

The wholesale historical inaccuracies that define instead of improve this enterprise render this film as pointless as it is dishonest. There’s manipulating history to create a more compelling narrative, to dramatically improve a story, and then there’s making shit up for the strange sake of it. Of all the changes that could be made to the facts, very few of those made make that much sense to me.

I would not have minded if it had been even less based in history than it was if the results had been worth it, and I don’t feel that they were.

The film culminates in the attempts by the Spanish Armada to invade England, long threatened since the film’s beginning. The Armada attacks, Sir Walter Raleigh leads the English to victory, and all is right with the world.

If the battle was just shown in pictures, as in still paintings, it would look awesome. The CGI artists capture the look of those highly stylised paintings you sometimes see of ships of the line fighting it out with cannon and shot. Unfortunately, almost nothing in the battle as a sequence of moving images went down the way indicated, capping off an empty film with an empty battle.

What stuck most in my craw was the manner in which the battle is resolved. Forget history: Eliza speaks to the troops wearing full plate armour and exhorts them loudly to destroy the Spanish invaders. It’s a powerful, iconic image. She looks great, truly ruly.

Later on, as night falls and the battle rages, she sheds her armour and walks to, I’m not sure if I’ve got this right, the edge of the cliffs of Dover. Clad in shimmering white nightie alone, we see that she is no longer just a woman, or even just a queen. She has become divine, and the battle will be won or lost dependant solely on divine favour.

Her evil, dark, swarthy counterpart, Phillip II (Jordi Molla) is shown at the same time, desperately praying to a candle. Catholic versus Protestant. Reformation versus Counter Reformation. Who will win?

Imagine, if you will, the first forty-five minutes of Saving Private Ryan redone in this fashion: FDR stands (well, he would have been in his wheelchair) clad in shimmering silks and satins, gazing longingly out over the Potomac River. Hitler, unshaven and dirty sits in his bunker, praying to his own saintly image reflected in a mirror. Brief flashes of battle interspersed with ethereal, elf-like images of FDR as he seems transformed, elevated by the events he can almost glimpse all the way from Normandy.

God decides suddenly, and so the Allied forces ‘win’ the D-Day Invasion, as FDR glows like someone who’s just had the most divine orgasm. Hitler drops his mirror, forlorn, knowing deep done that God has withdrawn his favour, and that his Reich will crumble. Iron crosses and swastikas tubmle downwards in the water to the cold depths, indicating the failure of Germany and the triumph of the Americas.

It’s all over in five minutes, and maybe there’s a scene where Tom Hanks gets to punch Hitler in the nuts with wacky music in the background.

If it sounds absurd, then you pretty much know my feelings on this film and that final battle.

It is simultaneously tolerable (being pretty to look at) and terrible at the same time, but would probably benefit from not having the volume on. Without dialogue, which is mostly delivered in these clipped, nonsensical bite-sized portions calculated to not tax even the dopiest dullard who could plonk themselves in front of a film they’d never watch in a pink fit, the film is okay.

It’s when you have to listen to the egregious dialogue and the depressing mangling of history that you wish they could have just been a bit more honest and just gone the whole hog by putting giant robots, sassy talking farm animals and mutants with super powers into this hollow film as well.

Because all the attempted assassinations that never transpired, mysterious brothers that never existed, headdresses with albino peacock feathers and time spent on costumes and CGI that wasn’t spent on a better plot and dialogue meant it could equally benefit from having Wolverine and Batman fighting it out with Godzilla and J. Edgar Hoover as Eliza looks on suggestively.

It would have made about as much sense. In all fairness, I hated the first Elizabeth film as well, so this one makes a great, empty, painfully melodramatic companion piece as well.

2 times hopefully they’ll leave the Elizabeth brand alone for a while out of 10

“I, too, can command the wind, sir! I have a hurricane in me that will strip Spain bare when you dare to try me!” – Elizabeth: The Golden Age.